Dealing with the Stigma Behind STDs

(Audrey Jang • The Student Life)

I’m sitting in my dorm room when a facetime notification pops up on my computer. A friend from my native Vancouver is calling. I’m caught off-guard—she’s not one to reach out in such an impromptu fashion.

I pick up. “Hello?”

She sniffles. “Hey, Jill.” I can tell she’s crying.

“What’s wrong?”

She whimpers, then tells me: “I have an STD.”

Pause. I want to take a moment to credit myself for keeping my composure. This was the first time a friend had openly told me about an STD. Many of us had gotten yeast infections, even UTIs, from time to time, but this felt worse. It felt permanent… even… tainting. I suppressed any reaction that would expose what I genuinely felt in that moment—that this was bad news.

“Which one?” I ask neutrally.

Sniffle. “HPV.”

“Oh honey, shit, I’m sorry,” I say. “You have Gardasil, right?”

She tells me yes, and we rehash what her doctor told her–that it goes away within a year at most, that with the vaccine it’s very unlikely this will turn into cancer, that she just has to use condoms until they’re sure it’s gone. Everything is okay. She won’t be in pain, she can still have sex, and she’s definitely not going to die—she just has to be careful with any sexual partners for a while.

“I know it’s not a big deal,” she says, “but I just feel so dirty. Like I’m not pure anymore.”

I scoff. “That is ridiculous.” I truly believe that it is.

First of all, this isn’t her fault. With any sexual partners she’s had, she has always made them get tested before she allowed sex without a condom. It was bad luck. There is no male test for HPV, so it slips under the STD radar, even when couples are careful.

More importantly, even if this was due to her being irresponsible, it would mean nothing more than that—that she was irresponsible. Sexual screw ups like that don’t make you any dirtier than anyone else. They don’t warrant shame because sex is not a shameful act.

Nonetheless, she’s still taking it hard. She feels like she got a bad grade on a test, or was rejected from a job she wanted. She feels like she failed. She feels less valuable.

I try to communicate to her that society has conditioned her to feel this way, that she didn’t do anything wrong, that anyone who shames those who have STDs is misguided and, frankly, a total jerk. Still, after years of “sexual education” propagating a normative, Judeo-Christian agenda, my words can only undo so much damage.

My interpretation of STD shaming in our culture is as follows: we’ve collectively agreed, at least in secular circles, to curtail our shaming of each other for having sex outside of marriage. We still do it, but we do it much less than our parents did, and even less than their parents did.

This is mostly out of necessity–we’ve, intelligently, decided to delay the age of marriage. This allows us to have better, more meaningful partnerships, as we have more time to grow and discover our preferences before we pick our ideal companion. However, for people with average to high sex drives, waiting until age 32 to have sex would significantly reduce our quality of life. It’s simply too miserable to wait that long.

That said, we still feel uncomfortable letting go of the shame around sex entirely. We still force both men and women to feel uncomfortable about “their number,” we still tell girls to hold out on sex so that boys will like them more, we still see abortions as highly taboo outside of any religious reasoning. We still shame people who have STDs. It’s counterproductive, but it represents the dissonance we have when society sends us mixed messages about sexual liberation and purity.

It’s time for us to take another step. It’s time to recognize that STD shaming is just a mechanism to shame others for having sex, while we (at least those of us who don’t have STDs) don’t have to feel shame ourselves. When we recognize this, we can let go of STD shaming.

On Saturday night I find myself in bed with my current “consistent hookup”. We’re not dating, and we don’t plan on dating, but we’ve had sex. One can assume that we’re not each other’s first sexual partner and that we won’t be each other’s last. Last time we had sex, we did it without a condom. But after this week’s events, I remind myself how important it is to be careful.

As he starts to move towards intercourse, I stop him. “Hey, do you mind if I grab a condom?”

“Ugh, you’re gonna kill my boner,” he says slowly. “I thought you were on birth control.”

“I am, but, like, STDs, you know.”

His body tenses, as he angrily spits out, “I don’t have STDs, do you have STDs?”. I can hear the offense, and a bit of disgust, in his voice.

I roll over, turning my body away from his. “I’m actually very tired,” I announce. We don’t have sex that night, and we don’t see each other again after that.

As of now, I’m done spending my nights with people who think they can screw all they want and still find a way to shame others for enjoying sex, too.

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